Fait Pas Accompli

‘The gulf between Israel and the Obama administration will continue after Netanyahu’s re-election’

Iran Israel Obama Points East & West US Politics
Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress, March 3

How bad is the nuclear deal the Obama administration is negotiating with Iran? The American public would not know the answer, had it not been for the speech that Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, delivered to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3.

The Obama administration probably hoped that a dramatic change of course in America’s Middle East foreign policy, coupled with a milestone nuclear agreement that leaves Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, could occur without a robust public debate. The administration kept crucial elements of the negotiations to itself for as long as it could. It failed to inform Israel and Gulf Arab allies about a back-channel with Iran it conducted in Oman until September 2013, when it was too late to reverse the basic contours of the interim nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).

It kept the full text of the implementation agreement of the JPOA out of the public eye and limited the ability of Congress to review and read the document in unprecedented ways. It failed to explain why important elements of what a “good deal” would look like were allowed to fall by the wayside—Iran’s ballistic missile programme and the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, to name the most glaring omissions—preferring instead to denounce critics as “warmongers”.

The White House also muddied the waters on the impact that a prolonged period of sanctions relief and sanctions suspension would do to Iran’s economy—and similarly dismissed those who came up with different figures from its own, even as evidence piled up about its gross underestimation of Iran’s economic windfall from the JPOA.

In short, despite grumblings and legislative threats from Congress and an increasingly apprehensive set of regional allies fearful of Iran’s rising power, President Obama believed that he could present a nuclear deal as a fait accompli, even as the agreement taking shape appears to undermine the US’s previously proclaimed strategic goals of preventing Iran from ever achieving nuclear weapons capability.

Whether Netanyahu’s speech was poorly timed, impolite or impolitic, it threw a wrench into what until then had appeared to be an unchallenged diplomatic process conducted behind the scenes. The prime minister asked probing questions on the direction of negotiations and the substance of Western concessions, the nature of the deal and its future implications. That is why Obama reacted so furiously—the much-touted breach of protocol obscured the fact that the President was being challenged on the substance of his policies and did not have a good answer to offer. He should have. Netanyahu’s words were not shrill, partisan accusations. The White House could have used the speech as a pretext to retreat from unwise concessions it already made. It could have stated forcefully its position in public. Instead, the administration chose to turn differences over a matter of vital strategic significance into a debate about etiquette.

The tactic failed, largely because by making the matter such a big deal the White House turned Netanyahu’s speech into an event of global interest and significance and his questions, to date left unanswered, resonated with reasonable people and traditional supporters of the President.

Having failed to fend off a debate over substantive policy issues, the White House found another pretext to change subject when, a few days after Netanyahu addressed Congress, Senator Tom Cotton, a freshman Senator from Arkansas, spearheaded an open letter to Iran’s leaders, which was co-signed by 46 other Republican Senators. The letter warned Iran’s leaders of negative repercussions of a deal negotiated while keeping Congress out of the loop.

Once again, the White House could have addressed substantive policy issues raised by increasingly frustrated legislators. Instead, it chose to denounce the move, rehashing the script it used against Netanyahu. Complaining about lèse-majesté may have its merits. But so did the letter.

It is politically foolish to antagonise Congress and not just because its concerns about the deal are well-justified. If the President holds any hope of implementing any deal, it will need to work with Congress to phase out and ultimately undo the elaborate sanctions architecture legislated over the years.

As with Netanyahu, though, Obama thinks time is on his side. After all, Netanyahu’s electoral gamble was not going well for the Israeli prime minister, with his party trailing behind its opponents in the polls as he came to Washington. What better way to skirt Netanyahu’s cri de coeur than to accuse him of brazen and cynical electioneering?

The President should have known better though. A left-of-centre Israeli government would no doubt have sought to mend fences. It would have been be more conciliatory on the Palestinian-Israeli track. But on Iran, it is hard to imagine anything different in strategic terms. As it turned out, Netanyahu won a fourth term of office. The gulf between Israel and the Obama administration over Iran will continue.

The same holds true for Obama’s domestic arena. Discounting Republicans today may make any diplomatic breakthrough short-lived. After all, the President himself threw into the dustbin of history the agreement that former President George W. Bush had reached with Israel’s late prime minister Ariel Sharon, over the territorial contours of a future Palestinian state.

Obama did not agree with the terms of that document and, because the deal had no Congressional authorisation, Obama did not feel bound by it. It was his predecessor’s policy, and he was entitled to discard it. His successors may feel the same about an Iran deal that contradicts not just the policy of all previous US administrations, but also Congressional legislation the President may have the power to suspend but not to reverse.

Obama may still get his way on the Iran deal. But his choice to ignore allies and neglect Congress will only work if the deal he signs off is as good as his critics demand it to be. Otherwise, the President’s “my way or the highway” approach to Iran’s nuclear programme will backfire.